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Choosing a Boa Constrictor

By: Dr. Steve Divers

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As snakes go, the boa constrictor is considered primitive. They still retain anatomical features that reflect their lizard descendents. If you are thinking about getting a boa constrictor, here are a few things you need to know about this popular snake.

Where They Live

Boas range from Northern Mexico south to Argentina and have also been found in the West Indies. Some live near bodies of fresh water in semi-desert regions, coastal deserts, grasslands and in woodlands, but most live in rain forests and steaming equatorial jungles.

What They Are Like

Boas are among the longest living of all species of snakes, with life spans of 20 years and more not uncommon. They have a thick body and a fairly narrow neck supporting a triangular head.

They vary greatly in coloration and patterns, but usually they are gray or a pinkish-brown with a series of dark saddles running down their back. These saddles become darker and closer together toward the tail. In some animals the tail takes a reddish color. Small black spots cover the whole body.

Baby boas grow fast, reaching 4 to 5 feet within a year and can reach 8 feet in length at maturity. Some weigh over 200 pounds.

Never Trust a Boa

Be very, very careful if you are introducing a boa into a home with small children or pets. Even a medium-sized constrictor can squeeze tightly enough to kill a cat, or dog, or a child. And it has happened.

They are not known for being aggressive, but some are more temperamental than others. Generally they don't offer much resistance once they're removed from their hiding places. But with their powerful coils, the bigger snakes are capable of crushing a man.

What a Boa Needs

Boas need space – enough room to stretch out to full length and get some exercise. As a general guide, a single adult boa should be kept in a vivarium (fancy word for snake house) measuring 6 feet by 2 feet or bigger for exceptionally large specimens.

Boas are nocturnal and like to swim and climb. While they will tolerate the presence of other animals in their space, two snakes together is usually one too many, especially at feeding time.

The vivarium should be made of fiberglass with thick glass panels sealed at the edges so the snake can't escape. It should be at least 2 feet high so lights and heaters can be mounted on the screen top of the enclosure and out of harm's way. The floor should be lined with artificial turf or newspaper.

Ventilation is probably the most overlooked facet in keeping boas. Many succumb to respiratory infections if there isn't enough airflow. A 2-inch strip of fine mesh running along the entire back wall of the cage and ventilation panels should provide enough fresh air.

Boas like to climb, especially when small. Mount a few branches in the enclosure; just make sure they're secure so they don't come tumbling down on the snake. Also, boas like to loll around in the water, so a container large enough for the snake to completely immerse itself is essential, especially if shedding is to occur normally.

Vivariums should be cleaned daily and the water bowl scrubbed thoroughly at least once a week.

Finally, new snakes should be kept in quarantine for at least a month before they're introduced to other snakes. Serious viral diseases can decimate a prized collection.

Temperature

Boas like it hot and sweaty. Since most originate in rainforests, they have limited ability to regulate their body temperature between extremes. Ceramic heaters, soil-warming cables and under-floor heater mats can be used to provide day and night heating. Illuminating spot-lights can only be used during the day to provide the snake with a basking area.

All heating devices, especially those with a high surface temperature, must be screened off from the snakes to avoid fatal or disfiguring burns.

Heaters and spotlights can be housed within mesh cages while heater mats and warming cables can be hidden under a false floor. Proportional, auto-dimming thermostats will reduce high surface temperatures, prolong heater life and create a more natural environment without temperature cycling and temperature zones. In all cases check the performance of thermostats with an accurate thermometer.

In general, humidity levels in the vivariums of adult boas should be in the 60 percent to 90 percent range. One trick to raise humidity is to place a large water container close to the main heat source.

During the day, keep the temperature at a toasty 86 to 94 degrees Fahrenheit. At night, lower the temperature to the 80 to 82 F range.

Feeding the Beast

This is not for the squeamish. Boas may be bashful and fickle, but eating is rarely a problem. Newborn snakes come out of the womb craving mice and should be offered lean ones. As a general rule, boas up to 3 feet in length should be fed up to two mice approximately the same girth as the snake every 5 to 7 days.

Boas up to 6 feet in length should be fed one or two rats every 7 to 14 days. Boas over 6 feet can also have a rabbit added to the menu every 3 to 6 weeks. Make sure the boa has plenty of fresh drinking water.

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